I get a lot of questions about makeup application (thank you everyone who's taken the time to tell me about your makeup struggles) and one thing that came up for several people was figuring out how to get foundation to look better.
If you've been following me for a while then you already know that I believe in teaching people "the rules" so that the door to endless possibilities is opened — because if you know how to play then you know how to win.
So I wanted to give you another ultimate guide but this time you're learning how to get the best-looking foundation.
I've broken this down into five different aspects that you need to pay attention to.
1. Choose the Correct Shade & Color of Foundation
When you think about choosing a foundation most people think in terms of light and dark (aka shade of foundation). Which is definitely important, but the aspect that people miss is the undertone in the product.
You'll hear undertone referenced when people talk about cool or warm. But I've found that there seems to be two different schools of thought around which is which. You might've noticed this too.
The different thoughts on cool or warm became readily apparent to me years ago when I asked a lady at an Estee Lauders counter to point me to the cool-toned foundations. I was used to MAC foundations that have yellow undertones labeled as "cool", and as you might've guessed I was super confused why all those "cool" foundations had pink undertones!
When people aren't on the same page about 'what is what' that always causes confusion.
So here's the bottom line on the two different schools of thought: some people, even some big brands, say that red or pink (pink = white mixed with red) is a cool undertone, while others label it as a warm undertone.
I'm in the red is warm camp because I subscribe to the color theory that artists & painters use.
So when I talk about warm undertones I'm talking about red and orange (yellow + red). When I mention cool undertones I'm talking about blue and green (yellow + blue). It is the presence of blue that dictates whether a color falls in the cool zone.
Yellow is normally warm, but it can be a little on the cooler side if it's not pure (aka mixed with a little bit of blue, but still appears yellow).
However, the label of cool or warm doesn't really matter. I just want you to be aware of the different definitions so you will know what I mean AND so that you can avoid feeling confused when you jump between makeup counters.
What I ultimately want is for you to understand that what truly matters is the color that is present.
Those colors are subject to "the rules" of nature — and nature always plays by the rules of color theory.
Color theory tells us what happens when mixing colors and what the visual effects of a specific color combination will be.
Such as it is with complementary colors (aka colors across from each other on the color wheel). They will cancel each other out when combined or mixed, and will increase in intensity when placed next to each other.
So tying it all back into foundation...
You might've noticed that sometimes when you apply makeup that there's a noticeable difference in where the makeup begins and where your skin ends.
Sure, it could be because you've chosen a shade that's a bit too light or too dark but more likely it's because the undertone doesn't really match the undertone in your skin.
Up until somewhat recently most foundations had a red base to them. Thus the orangey tones & pink tones create a noticeable foundation line when a person needs a more yellow/olive foundation.
While it's true that a lot of us have both warm (pink, orange) undertones in our skin as well as cooler undertones (olive and even sometimes blue), most medium to fair skinned people will benefit from choosing a foundation with a yellow/olive undertone.
The reason why is: people's faces tend to be on the "red-er" side and we need the yellow/olive undertone to help cancel out that redness (thank you color theory).
If you have a deep complexion a warm undertone might actually serve you better as it will help cancel out some of the "dullness" that can happen with deep complexions.
So you see, you need to pay attention to the undertones.
Matching Your Foundation Correctly
Regardless of generalities here's how to match your foundation properly because hey, you might be the person who does actually need the pink-based foundation.
1. Find your correct skin undertone. Look at your upper chest and upper arms (of course, if you have rosacea on your chest this isn't going to be the best method for you). Try to look beyond beige, Tan, or Chocolate. If you had to choose a dominant color for your arms and chest what would it be out of these: Olive(Green)? Orange? Yellow? Pink? Red? Blue?
This is like taking a step back from a picture to make sure that all the elements fit nicely together. You're a whole person, not just a face. So you'll want to match your foundation to the skin that is close to your face (thus your upper chest and upper arms).
2. Find your face undertone. Does it match your upper chest and arms? If it's more red/pink then you will need to color correct by choosing that yellow/olive undertone foundation like I mentioned earlier. Or maybe your face is sallow while your body is a little more bronzed with orange tones. In which case you'll want that orange or pink base foundation.
Bottom line: you'll want to match your chest and upper arms color unless you need to color correct for your face. If you need to color correct this is where color theory comes into play, and you'll need to refer to the color wheel. Select the color that is opposite the one you need to cancel out.
3. Choose the correct foundation shade. This one usually isn't too challenging for most of us, but shade means the level of lightness or darkness. Finding an exact match is ideal. You're still going to match the shade to the level of your arms and chest like I mentioned in steps 1 & 2.
If you can't seem to find the correct shade then either change brands or choose to err on the lighter side and use bronzer and contouring powder to help adjust the shade of your foundation.
4. Choose the correct foundation color. You should already know what undertone you need (you're either matching your upper arms & chest or color correcting for your face), so when you test the foundation tone/color you must absolutely test it in natural day-light to get the true tone. The fluorescent lights in stores change the color of the foundation and what matches in there will not match out in the real world.
So put a couple lines of the product on the underside of your forearm and either walk outside or go by the window to check the undertone.
It seems like you will either find foundations with pink, orange, or yellow. There are some brands that have a little more olive in them. But those first three seem to be the majority.
Remember that there may not be a perfect match but just get as close as possible. Consider using other products like blush, contouring powder, or bronzer to help bring back the balance. And like I mentioned before most medium to fair skinned people can and should use a yellow toned foundation.
When a foundation looks too yellow it's typically because the shade is too dark.
Although, I have found that some brands have really amped up the yellow concentration and adjusting the shade doesn't help. In which case, choose a different brand if the foundation still looks too yellow on you.
2. Understand & Choose The Right Type of Product
Clearly different products do different things. So understanding that foundation isn't merely foundation is crucial to your ability to get a product to look just right. Foundations come in a variety of finishes, consistencies, and different types of coverage. Each will sit on the skin in different ways.
The trouble is not all brands have the exact same definitions of those things (although 'matte' does tend to be pretty spot on across brands). Brands might use different ratios of ingredients, their 'sheer' might be more like light coverage, or even the sparkle particle size might vary in luminating products.
So ultimately it will be up to you to be the detective to decipher whether or not a brand is actually following the general definitions I'm going to outline for you.
The good news is: if they do then you simply have to find which benefit you need so that you can choose products that will best suite your needs and your personal preferences.
Finishes are ultimately going to tell you the amount of shine for your foundation. Just like how you can choose finishes in paint for your walls, you can choose finishes in foundation:
The different consistencies in foundation serve to help with application, the way it feels on your skin, and can even supply some post-application benefits (such as controlling shine):
Foundation Types of Coverage
Alright, now those finishes (matte, natural, luminous) and consistencies (gel, liquid, cream, mousse, powder) can be applied to these different types of foundations which deliver varying degrees of coverage:
So now that you've got some basic knowledge around finishes, consistencies, and different types of coverage with foundations you might understand that it can definitely be a product that causes things to go "wrong" (meaning it's just a bad product that doesn't function correctly), but it can also be a simple mismatch of skin type to product (meaning it's a great product just not a great product for you).
So do pay attention to choosing a product that is best suited to y-o-u.
3. Learn The Right Technique of Foundation Application For Your Skin Type
In addition to helping you know which type of product you need, your skin type will tell you which application technique you should be using.
Before I started doing makeup professionally, I used to watch girls on youtube who use those fluffy kabuki brushes to buff on their foundation and they always looked absolutely flawless!
So I was always super baffled as to WHY it looked like I had applied my foundation with a piece of sandpaper after I used one.
Well folks, it has to do with the fact that I have combination skin. Which means that not only do I tend to get a little shiny throughout the day, I also have a tendency to get dry spots on my skin.
Of course, there's things that you can do to limit skin issues (like using good products and having a good skincare routine), but BUFFING foundation on is not a friend of us combo or dry-skinned gals.
I'll tell you upfront that I typically recommend everyone to use a sponge (beauty blender or other sponge to apply their foundation) and gently pat on their foundation. Unless it's a tinted moisturizer then you can simply use clean fingers (because there isn't enough pigment to show texture issues).
The reason I typically recommend a sponge is because a sponge gives a very natural finish, is kinder to the skin, and makes it easier to build coverage in areas that might need it.
However, it's important to note that sometimes the product can require certain tools to be used. Meaning there are some foundations that just don't look good when you use a sponge. BUT that won't change what your skin needs.
For example, if the product calls for a brush and buffing it in, it's probably not a good product for dry-skinned peeps. So always choose products based on your skin and your needs.
Let's run through some general application details about what each skin type is and needs:
Normal Skin: You don't have visible pores. You don't typically get oily or dry. You may get a pimple from time to time but your skin is generally clear. If this is you, then you can use a brush to buff in foundation, clean fingers, a flat brush, or even a sponge. Your skin won't show a "reaction" from the application (unless you easily turn red). The only thing you might have to pay attention to is the hair on your face, and you can simply get it to lay flat again with a clean fluffy brush.
Oily Skin: You have visibly large pores. You may suffer from acne, and tend to get pretty shiny throughout the day. Oily skin that is not acne-prone can look really great with a buffing technique, but acne or acne scars tend to cause the application technique to be patchy; not to mention irritating on your skin. Fingers can pose the same problem, and if they aren't properly cleaned then you might be in for a breakout. Patting with a sponge will most likely be your best bet, as any "dragging" motion by a brush or sponge may just look blotchy due to the "uneven" surface. It's super important for you to use some sort of primer or possibly a pore minimizer.
Dry Skin: You might have a mild or severe case, but either way the skin might look dull, flakey, patchy. You'll notice that anytime you put a pigmented product on your face (like foundation) that you suddenly find out just how dry your skin actually is. The best method for you hands down is going to be a patting application vs. buffing/rubbing. The reason why is because those buffing motions are actually exfoliating your skin and lifting the skin that hasn't yet been shed. Also, be careful when applying makeup with your fingers as they can also micro-exfoliate your skin making the flakes more visible. FYI this is also true for other products you apply like setting powder. Pat it all on, even if you use a brush.
Combination Skin: You have visible visible pores in your t-zone or maybe on your cheeks. You might be a normal/oily type or an oily/dry type. I've found that generally the patting sponge technique will indeed be best for you, but read the tips from the two sections above that you qualify for.
Mature Skin: You simply have more lines. Mature skin tends to be on the dry side, but that's not always the case. So read the tips from the section above that you qualify for. In terms of the fine lines, I do find that either buffing (don't do that though if you're dry skinned) or the patting sponge technique works the best.
4. Good Skin Comes First
I'm sure you're like many people (I'm one of them too) who wishes that makeup could do it all.
Makeup does a lot but the honest truth is: makeup looks good when your skin looks good.
The better your skin looks the better your makeup will look. Foundation is obviously a really great tool when it comes to color correction ( e.g. Hiding melasma, blotchiness, red acne, acne scars, sallow skin, etc.) BUT it's not very good at concealing the texture of your skin (unless maybe you cake it on, but even the aesthetics of that is debatable).
And while it's true that there are some prep products that can help with texture (like pore minimizers/fillers & blur products), those are not really capable of the mind-blowing results I think we all secretly expect.
I'm sure that isn't new information, but I do think that we all hold on to some sort of false hope that makeup products are magic (because c'mon it would be amazing if they were).
So it's best to understand that products like primers and setting sprays will help with the longevity & finish of your makeup, and some "blurring" products can help minimize super fine lines or fill in "mild" pores but they are not typically going to be able to help texture (lines, grooves, bumps, holes, dry skin, dullness, etc.).
Before you get bummed out, there's some good news. You can get noticeably improved texture from skin care.
First of all, there is a HUGE difference when you simply start using professional skincare products.
Second, you've got to get a good skin care routine going. Yes, that means washing your face, using a moisturizer, and ideally, getting monthly facials.
Some people don't take care of their skin, and some people just don't know what they're doing (like did you know it's not good to exfoliate every day?).
My cousin came into town for a visit and she was telling me that her skin was crazy dry, red, and irritated. And she couldn't figure out why since she drinks a ton of water. After a quick glance at her face wash I saw that it had AHA (a chemical exfoliant), and was like, "Dude, you can't use this every morning and night."
She of course didn't know what she didn't know, and she was just doing what the girl at the department store had told her. But that was too much exfoliation.
So that's why it's important to go to a licensed professional (like an esthetician) who can get you on the right track with the correct products.
Investing in your skin is truly where you will get the most noticeable results.
I typically recommend that you invest in these type of PROFESSIONAL products as a minimum:
1. Face wash (it's important to gently cleanse your skin at the end of the day.)
2. Serum (these will help improve almost any concern you have with continued used; like blotchiness or fine lines.)
3. Nighttime Moisturizer (not always labeled as such, but will typically have more concentrated ingredients.)
4. Moisturizing SPF (good idea to protect your skin from the sun & there are such things as mattifying moisturizers FYI.)
5. A Mask (this won't be used every day but maybe a couple of times a week. Masks are like a super version of a product. They can help with acne, moisture, fine lines, firmness, dullness, etc.)
6. An Exfoliator (There are product exfoliators that have fine rough particles in them, or tools like Clarisonic, and even chemical exfoliators like AHA or glycolic acid.)
Before we jump into the next section, let's quickly run through two skin concerns that come up a lot for people:
Acne - I know first-hand how embarrassed acne can make you feel. I suffered with cystic acne for a few years and it was terrible. So I get it. Which is exactly why I really encourage anyone who is struggling to do some research and find a good dermatologist. They can help you, and they can even use things like lasers to minimize acne scars.
Ok with that said, when in a pinch you can do a little pre-makeup work like icing a pimple for 15 minutes or so, and using an anti-inflammatory cream. Makeup does a fine job of correcting redness, it's just the bump part that needs some extra pre-makeup attention.
Dry Skin - "The bane in my existence." Am I right? Dry skin is truly a challenge. Particularly because makeup just makes the dryness more visible. We have already covered how application can help, and obviously good skincare products and routines will do A LOT, but sometimes you need help immediately.
Hopefully, you have enough time because the only way you're going to make your makeup sit better is by doing a mini skincare session. Put warm water on a clean wash cloth to exfoliate, by doing small circles across your face (don't do this if you just learned that you've been over exfoliating; just skip to the next part). While the skin is still damp, apply a moisturizing face mask that needs to sit at least 10 minutes. Then apply a moisturizing serum (or face oil if you're not acne prone), and your moisturizer.
The last thing you can do for dry skin is make an assessment for the consistency of foundation that you should go with. If you use a powder foundation instead of a liquid or a cream it will help minimize the "flakes" from standing out but you run the risk of making the skin overall look dehydrated. So selecting a product is really a case by case basis.
5. Add Dimension Back Into Your Face
If you're a beauty insider of this blog, then we probably agree on wanting to keep things simple & fast when it comes to putting on makeup.
So trust me when I say that I totally get it if you don't want to add more time or products to your routine, BUT if you're truly after that natural-looking makeup, it does take a little bit of effort to make it look that way.
Skin naturally as many different colors in it. For example, without foundation you can see the natural flush your skin might give, that honey glow you get from the sun (FYI you better still be protecting it with SPF lol), or even the natural shadows and contours on your face.
And since foundation serves to make your complexion more even, it also masks things that it shouldn't.
In other words, foundation is wonderful when you're evening out a complexion but not so good in terms of looking natural.
So you need to add some dimension back into your face with things like contouring, bronzing, blush, and highlighting.
The Bottom Line for The Best Looking Foundation
Start by figuring out what your skin type is and what you're most concerned about (like dark spots, red spots, blotchiness or if there's even anything at all). If texture is a concern of yours then you really need to invest in your skin ( really everyone and anyone will benefit from good skincare).
Once you've got that, then decide on the right type of product (pay attention to your needs in regards to finishes, consistencies, and different types of coverage).
Remember, before you purchase just make sure that you've chosen the correct shade (level of lightness/darkness) and the correct color (it's all about color theory and undertones).
Then the only thing left to do is practice your foundation application which again is based on your skin type.
How do you do with foundation?
I'd love to hear from you!
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I am a professional makeup artist and licensed cosmetologist. I absolutely enjoy sharing hair and makeup tips to help others enhance their natural beauty. (Trust me, you're gorgeous.)